Crossroads of Humanity

Sep 22, 2013

Grades or no grades, that is the question!

I bet when you think of school, you think of desks in straight rows, homework and grades, among other things. I am a teacher, and I do not believe that any of that makes for a high quality learning environment.

Oh, sometimes desks in straight rows fits the bill, as in a college level, lecture style environment or when a guest speaker is present. Straight rows work especially well for choir, orchestra and band too. However, they do not work well as a staple of any preschool or elementary level classroom. Come middle school, straight rows of desks work well more often, but still are not ideal for the majority of the students' day. It is my belief that the environment must be adaptable so that students can easily work in small groups, alone, or in a large group as is best suited to any particular lesson or follow-up work.

In my opinion, homework is rarely beneficial. In my Montessori class, students receive assignments that are based upon the lessons they receive. Throughout the day, they are called to small group lessons, and when not in a lesson, they have time to work on their follow-up assignments or to do any other work that interests them. Montessori classrooms have a lot of hands-on materials on the shelves for students to choose from during work time. At the end of each day, all of the students sit down and take a look at our large laminated class planner and make sure their individual planners are up to date. If they've been using work time appropriately, they will rarely have homework. If students misuse their work time, or if they have been absent and need to catch up, they may have work that will need to be finished outside of school.

Grades... I have had a problem with the idea of grades ever since my first year of teaching. No, wait. It really started before that, when I was in my upper level teaching classes during undergrad. That is when I realized that my grades actually went up when I stopped focusing on them and instead focused only on what I was learning. However, my first year of teaching, I quickly noticed something I will share with you now. Although a good grade, an A does not always mean the same thing on every report card. Nor does a C necessarily indicate a student's capabilities. Grades really have little to no meaning. Really...let me explain.

Lisa is a natural at math. She catches on quickly and retains new concepts with ease. She certainly deserves the A she receives on her report card. Tommy works his hardest trying to understand the concepts he is being taught. He keeps up with the work and gets outside help from a tutor. His skills improve tremendously, and when grading time rolls around, he is deserving of the A he receives on his report card. Two A's. It is my belief that they do not mean the same thing. Now let's look at Cecily. She could easily do the math. Like Lisa, she understands and retains the concepts with ease, but she has a hectic schedule outside of school and rarely completes her assignments. She squeaks by with a C. However, that does not represent her skills, and her 100% scores on her exams and in class work show her teacher how gifted she is. Still, the C stands.

When I switched from traditional education to Montessori, I was thrilled that there were no "grades," not in the typical sense anyway. Students still do work. In fact, they do a tremendous amount of work. The beauty of the system is because teachers call small groups of students at a time while the rest of the class has open work time (choices within boundaries and freedom with responsibility) those who need repetition receive it and those who can move ahead have the chance to soar as far as they are able. Are students assessed? You bet they are! Every time I meet with a small group, I assess the students quickly before we move ahead to the next lesson. Periodically, students receive more rigorous assessments, and they even have standardized tests three times per year. Their parents receive report cards too. The report cards give the parents a comprehensive list of what lessons and skills their child has been introduced to, is working on, and has mastered. That's much more helpful than a letter to represent an entire subject area. Finally, with no grades, students aren't allowed to slack. If they finish an assignment, and their work is of poor quality or inaccurate, they don't get a poor grade and move on, instead they do it again and again until it's done well.

So...grades or no grades? Which do you think is better?

What makes a Montessori education so special? And how do students in Montessori schools fair when compared with students in other school systems? I have not done the research, but others have.

Montessori Method vs. Traditional Education

Montessori Education Provides Better Outcomes Than Traditional Methods, Study Finds

Comparison of Academic Achievement Between Montessori and Traditional Education Programs

In addition to being a Montessori teacher, S.L. Wallace is the author of the Reliance on Citizens trilogy and Retrospection.

Sep 8, 2013

Personal Rant

When it happens, I want to scream. Instead, I smile and nod and respond as polite society expects. By it, I mean whenever I say something that is very important to me, a really big deal, and the person I'm talking with shrugs it off. It can also mean when someone else places their assumptions about the world on me. I hate when that happens. But what am I to do?

I've never been what most would consider conventional. I'm not a fan of clothing that boldly proclaims the latest trademark or logo. Even as a teenager, I never much cared for shopping at all, and the latest trend has always been the least of my concerns.

Go back even further...grade school. In 6th grade, as part of our P.E. curriculum, we had the opportunity to either go cross country skiing or downhill skiing. My mother told me years later that she'd been impressed with my decision, not because of the decision itself but because of how I made my decision.

She saw the permission form and asked me, "What are you going to do?"

I told her, "I think I'll go cross country skiing."

She asked, "Who else is signing up for that?"

I shrugged and said, "I don't know." And honestly, I didn't much care. I knew I'd have fun skiing with whoever made the same choice.

Unbeknownst to me, my mother checked around. Apparently, other kids in my class were on the phone for hours that night, trying to decide who was doing what so they could make the right choice.

Flash forward. My boyfriend and I had been together for years, ever since the end of high school. We both went on to college, so marriage wasn't a priority for either of us in those early days. Then I graduated and began my first job. I knew my boyfriend didn't believe in the convention of marriage, but I liked the idea of publicly sharing our commitment to each other for all the world to see. He was resistant to the idea, so I backed off, happy enough to just be with him, and I was as surprised as everyone who really knew us when he did eventually pop the big question. And then it started. Family members and felt like almost everyone who saw my ring wanted to know the same thing, "When are you going to start a family?" Just thinking about that question makes me want to scream. Why can't just two people together be "a family"?

I wanted to shout out, "That's not why everyone gets married!"

I'm unconventional, remember? So we waited 10 years to have our first child and enjoyed being a family of two. I love my daughter so much; we both do. But we don't know that we will have any more children. Still...not more than a few weeks ago, one of my friends talked to me as if we will someday soon have another baby. I wanted to shake her and say, "There's a big difference between when and if." But I didn't. Instead, I kept from rolling my eyes, smiled and let the conversation naturally move on.

It continues to happen in another, more serious aspect of my life. Just over a year ago, we moved away from our hometown, from family and friends, from a location where we were comfortable. We left behind our house that we now rent out. I left behind a job that was becoming ever more stressful but also co-workers I enjoyed knowing on a professional level as well as a personal friendship level, students I cared for, and parents who stood behind the school and teachers. Leaving was not an easy decision. That all must be made perfectly clear for my next point to be completely understood...

Sometimes I tell people, "In order to make a stand, we made a choice to move away from Wisconsin. Besides, I don't want my daughter going to school anywhere in that state for the foreseeable future."

There aren't words to adequately describe how it feels to hear the response, "Yes, we don't like what's going on in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, (pick a location) either. It must be nice to have the option to move."

Really? Really! Moving was not a simple option! It was a choice, and it was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever made, yet I believe it was the right decision for us, and I'm happy to report that moving has led to an amazing job with wonderful coworkers and students, and some fabulous new friendships. Thank you to everyone who has been there for us.

I'll end with a plea. Please do not vote for Governor Scott Walker if he runs for president. If you don't know why I would say that, please refer to Congratulations, Scott Walker... You win! For now, I'll hold my fears in check, and will rely on the compassion I believe most U.S. citizens have for each other.

S.L. Wallace is the author of the Reliance on Citizens trilogy and Retrospection.